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Live review: Jakob Dylan at the Wiltern

May 14, 2010 | 12:35 pm

It couldn’t have been by accident that the Wiltern Theatre’s stage lights were angled Thursday night so that Jakob Dylan’s signature fedora rendered the upper part of his face obscured for much of his homecoming concert.

For much of the supernaturally gripping material on his exceptional new “Women + Country” album deals with the shadowy parts of life, ghosts and vacated homes and hearts.

Those songs served as the anchor for what Dylan described as his first show in Los Angeles proper in eight years, for which he was joined by singers Neko Case and Kelly Hogan and Case’s band, Three Legs. The hometown crowd also got a cameo appearance at the end of the evening by “Women + Country” producer T Bone Burnett, who strapped on an electric guitar and spun out some of his inimitably tremulous lead lines.

The other musicians weren’t so much Dylan’s support staff as equal partners in a bold collaboration that has allowed the 40-year-old singer and songwriter to reach new musical vistas.

The challenge for any artist who creates as organically complete and artistically satisfying a work as “Women + Country” is how to present it live. Assuming he wasn’t inclined to follow his contrarian dad’s lead and just ignore a new album entirely, the two choices were to deliver it in its entirety, as Peter Gabriel just did last week at the Hollywood Bowl with his “Scratch My Back” album, or serve it up in chunks interspersed with other material spanning a career.

Dylan the younger chose the latter path, with less consistently powerful results than Gabriel triumphantly delivered. What makes “Women + Country” a strong album-of-the-year contender is the lyrical and musical heft and emotional arc in the progression of its 11 songs.

Dylan wrestles with the open-ended promise that life represents in the album’s opening track, “Nothing But the Whole Wide World,” with which he also opened Thursday’s show.  From there, the album moves through the sadness that accompanies lost opportunity, empathy, bemused alienation, ennui and anger at humanity’s squandering of its grander promise. Yet a ray of new hope emerges in “Holy Rollers for Love” and “They’ve Trapped Us Boys,” the latter used by Dylan to conclude the show, a sparkling neo-bluegrass number amid the earthy country-rock-folk brew that characterizes most of the new songs.

But detouring as he did Thursday through his solo and Wallflowers material to pull in songs that could sonically blend with the newer stuff, Dylan siphoned off some of the force he potentially could have built in keeping the “Women + Country” material intact.

After a strong stretch of five new songs at the outset — including a stirring duet with Case on “Smile When You Call Me That” — the transcendent quality became earthbound with the Wallflowers’ “6th Avenue Heartache,” a more conventional portrait of social indifference to its outcasts.

That was followed by “Evil Is Alive and Well” from his 2008 Rick Rubin-produced solo acoustic album “Seeing Things,” which thematically fit better into the “Women + Country” mix, as did “War Is Kind” from the same collection.

Case’s remarkable band -- guitarist Paul Rigby, steel guitarist Jon Rauhouse, upright bassist Tom Ray and drummer Barry Mirochnick — was consistently inspired and inspiring in the players’ seamless synchronicity. Case and Hogan, on their final night touring with Dylan, brought pure, sweet counterbalance to his earthy rasp of a voice.

But even though “Seeing Things” is closer in spirit to the new songs than his earlier work with the Wallflowers, both occupy a different psychic space than the one he’s entered with “Women + Country” and might have been better served by being corralled into different halves of a split program.

As boldly rewarding a step as Dylan has taken with “Women + Country,” it’s hard not to wish to see him follow it through fully into the live arena, risk and all.

--Randy Lewis

Photo: Jakob Dylan at the Wiltern. Credit: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times

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